I've done quite a few cycling trips, but three clearly stand out as the major ones: Tokyo to the southernmost point of Kyushu, Tokyo to the northernmost point of Hokkaido, and Kyushu back to Tokyo. As far as the Japanese coast line goes, the last bit that I haven't done yet is from the northernmost point of Hokkaido back to Tokyo via the east coast.
Next year is the ten year anniversary of that first trip, the one from Tokyo to Kyushu all by myself. Inevitably, I find myself thinking about my life in terms of "before the trip" and "after the trip", about what kind of person I was before, and what kind of person I was about to become. That first trip is the marker for the biggest change in my life. I moved back from Japan to Europe. One life ended, and another one began. I was young and naive and full of a hope and a freedom that I will never ever regain. The term 'cycling trip', to me, is about that feeling of youth and freedom. But it's a feeling I've gradually lost over time.
Europe taught me some harsh lessons about what it's like to actually be an adult. I really had just been playing around in Japan, and I was not quick to change my ways after moving to the UK. I landed a job with a lot of freedoms, and I used it to become the most physically fit that I ever was. By the time I took three months off for the second cycling trip, I was in my prime. I challenged myself by cycling routes that I'd never even have consided before. The second trip to the North of Hokkaido was definitely my best physical achievement. I was never 'not fat', but I was definitely fit.
Between the second and the third trip something changed. I started becoming a different person again. It became hard to think of cycling in the same way as before. After the first trip I had never experienced life in that way before, and there was nothing better to me. The second trip continued on that feeling, but at the same time my life back in the UK was starting to come together.
My moment of 'cracking' came during a smaller trip, a few years after the big trip north. I had taken a two-week holiday from my job to do a shorter cycle from Hiroshima to Kyushu, to repeat a few of my favorite bits from past cycling trips, and to fill in a bit of coastline I hadn't cycled yet. I was cycling along the coastline with a perfect blue sky, not too warm, not too cold. It was a nice, wide, road, with a cycling area to the side and not too much traffic. Mountains on one side, and some small islands visible along the Japanese inland sea. It should have been perfect. I should have been enjoying myself beyond belief. But all I could think of was: "Why am I not enjoying this?"
I didn't understand the feeling, or where it came from. I stopped by a convenience store, bought some food and sat on a seawall for quite some time, feeling unhappy and trying to make sense of my emotions. Whenever I think about my trips nowadays, it is that moment that stands out for me as the turning point, the point where I realized I was becoming someone else. I didn't understand or accept it at the time, and it vexed me for years. It kind of still does. I still want to be the person I was back when I undertook that first cycling trip, but I can't. I can never go back to that. My life experience won't let me.
That trip was in Autumn. The next spring, I quit my job and went cycling again, to do it properly this time. I figured that the previous trip left a bad feeling because I had a job to get back to. It's hard to reproduce the feeling of freedom if you're only on a two-week break, so so I thought at the time. The third 'I quit my job and I'm going cycling' trip went from Kyushu back to Tokyo. It started at the point where I left with a bad feeling the previous autumn, and I felt vindicated when I made it back to Tokyo along the northern coast. I still had it.
But my exit from my job was a soft exit, with the opportunity to come back, which I did. Soon I was living the same life as before the cycling trip, which is why in the long term I think about this third trip differently than the previous two. Every cycling trip I see my options in life decreasing. Every trip I get older, more settled down. And that's not a bad thing at all. I'm quite happy with the direction my life is going. I'm creating options in one area, but as a consequence, options in another area are disappearing. Cycling trips remind me of a freedom I can't ever have back, and that's why I started feeling bad when I think about cycling trips. More and more it feels like escaping from life rather than creating opportunities in life.
There's one more trip left before I can finally say that I've cycled all of the coast of Japan, and I'm dreading it more and more every year. I've chosen my life in the UK, so I won't get the sense of freedom I got from the first trip. I'm getting older every year, and I'm definitely past my physical prime, though I reckon I'll have no real trouble as long as I don't injure myself. I'm pretty good at not injuring myself. Lastly, the bit of the coast I didn't do yet is the coldest, longest, most desolate, un-Japanese part of all of Japan: the east and north coasts of Hokkaido. Long stretches of nothingness with cold temperatures and strong winds. None of it is what I like about Japan, and it feels like a chore to do it at this point.
2020 seemed like the perfect 'I quit my job and I'm going cycling' year. Exactly ten years after the first trip. A perfect opportunity to evaluate what I was then and what I am now. But the truth is: I do that all the time. It's not like I turn my brain off for ten years and then wake up and wonder where I am. I chose to come here and I was conscious for all of it, no excuses. I'm no longer the same person I was ten years ago, and the person I am now has different priorities. I wouldn't have grown as a person if that statement turned out not to be true.
The legendary fourth trip will have to wait a little longer. I've not given up, but I need to create the right opportunity for it. Life goals allowing, I intend to make this happen in the next five years.
Let's see what will happen in the next decade. 2020, bring it on.